“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20
And I will tell you a modern fable . . .
The earth was in crisis. Rivers were polluted. The air was fouled, the food chain poisoned. An aides epidemic was killing millions. City streets were battle lines in a race war. Civil courts were clogged with the most uncivilized behavior– lying, cheating, stealing, divorce. Churches were half attended. Family values were dead. And taxes were climbing over 40% as big government threw money at problems.
What to do? The president called a summit of the nations best mayors, lawmakers, police chiefs, and professors. All of their gathered input was fed into a computer and the key was pressed requesting solutions. The powerful main frame began its electronic ruminations, then slowly began it’s printout.
“You shall have no other god but God.”
“You shall not bow to a graven image.”
“You shall not take God’s name in vain.”
“Remember the Sabbath day.”
“Honor your father and mother.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not kill.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not covet.”
So it is we come to the law of God as discussed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And there are three key phrases we must master if we are to comprehend what Jesus said.
The first is “The Law” “Think not that I have come to abolish the law,” Jesus said. What exactly is “the law,” to which Jesus is referring?
In the Old Testament there are three groups of laws.
First, there are the health laws found mostly in Leviticus. God promised his people, “If you obey my commandments . . . I will put none of these diseases among you which the Egyptians had” (Exodus 15:26). Then God proceeded to reveal health and nutritional habits that science has only affirmed in the last 150 years. Check it out: Sterilization (Leviticus 13:52), the quarantine (Lev. 13:45-45), purification (Lev. 13:54), meat spoilage (Lev. 19:5-7), and further laws about revenge, sexual expression and diet.
In the year 1348 a ship pulled into the harbor of Genoa, Italy. It had been trading for spices in distant Mediterranean ports. As she was tied
up to the wharf, the bodies of several sailors, recently deceased, were carried ashore. The healthy crew members off-loaded their cargo and went ashore themselves.
Soon, even the healthy crew became sick with wheezing and rosy patches on their skin. They, too, began to die.
The epidemic spread to households, merchants, schools, monasteries . . . and other cities.
Some citizens went to bed well, got sick in their sleep, and died before daybreak.
The mysterious illness began with rosy patches on the skin ringed in red, then the victim began to sneeze, and death came within days at most.
Children began to play games in the street and chant, “Ring around the rosey (the symptoms), a pocketful of poseys (flower petals thought to cure), a tichoo, a tichoo (sneezing)! We all fall down!” (The grim result of the plague.)
Between 1348 and 1350 at least one third of the population between India and Iceland perished in what became known as “The Black Death.” Entire villages were wiped out. Some urban areas lost half their populations. There were so many corpses there weren’t enough workers to bury the dead.
Why was this sickness ravaging the world? Doctors thought it came from poisoned wells. The Jews were blamed. And thousands of Jewish innocents were massacred. Others thought it came from someone giving you the evil eye. Soon, no one was making eye contact.
It was the monks of the monastic orders who eventually abated the plague. They did so by restoring the health laws of Leviticus to medieval society.
Fourteenth century European towns were built tightly together. Raw sewage was emptied into city streets from chamber pots. The sick were not quarantined. People ate with unwashed hands. Rats foraged in unburned trash.
The monks taught villagers to dispose of human waste outside the city. They insisted clothes be washed regularly. Quarantines were imposed. General sanitation improved. And the plague lifted.
It would be another 500 years before science understood what the sickness was, how it killed, and how to prevent it. Now we know it was the Bubonic Plague, caused by flea bites, the fleas nesting on rats that were brought in on ships. When the monks taught villages to clean up, the rats left and so did the fleas and the plague.
The Ceremonial Law
Besides the health laws of diet and sanitation, there are the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Many of them are found in the Book of Numbers, but you’ll find them throughout the first five books of the Bible.
The ceremonial laws deal with things like the calendar year and certain seasonal repetitious celebrations of God’s mighty deeds– Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement and Hanukkah. The priesthood’s calling and training is prescribed along with dress code, music, and specific acts of worship such as praise, fasting, confession, and reading God’s Word.
The point of all this is plain. God exists. And he desires a balanced relationship with his people. But he is Holy. And we are warned not to come into his presence casually, but reverently, and on his divinely revealed terms.
Ah, but here’s the sticking point! We all want God . . . but on our own terms. I was discussing worship with a gentleman recently, and he said, “I think people should find a church in which they are comfortable and dress like they please.” The problem with such thinking is that it is backwards. It is man-focused instead of God-focused. It asks, “What do I want?” not “What does God want?” It asks if I am comfortable, a rather Hedonistic question. But it overlooks the more important consideration, “Is God pleased?” The ceremonial laws answer that question.
The Moral Law
Besides the health laws and the ceremonial laws of Scripture, there is yet a third body of law taught in the Old Testament, and that is the moral law. Technically called the decalogue, we know it more popularly as the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20.
The first four moral laws deal with one’s relationship with God– priority, worship with mind and body, religious speech, and time.
The last six of the laws deal with our relationship with people– respect for authority, respect for property, marriage, truth, and life. And a warning against greed.
So, when Jesus mentioned “the law” in his sermon, he was likely referring to the health laws, the ceremonial law, as well as the decalogue.
Now, to further complicate matters! In Jesus’ day “the law” could mean one of four things. . .
- It could refer to the Ten Commandments.
- It could refer to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, literally in Hebrew, “The Five Rolls” or scrolls of the Old Testament.
- It could refer to the whole of Scripture, including the prophets. This is, obviously, what Jesus was meaning, because, in the text, he actually refers to “the law and the prophets.”
- But there is a fourth law, and that is man’s interpretation. It is the oral or scribal law, that is, man’s interpretation.
For instance, in the fourth commandment work is forbidden on the Sabbath. But what constitutes work? The law has to be interpreted. So a sect of scribes developed in Judaism whose purpose was to interpret the law.
Scribes defined work on the Sabbath as carrying money in your pocket. They decreed it was unlawful to carry more weigh than a dried fig, drinking more than a swallow of milk or writing more than two letters of the alphabet. They even taught that in treating the sick, it was sinful to heal on the Sabbath. One could stabilize the patient, but must not seek to cure him.
By 300 A. D. the scribes had written over 800 pages of laws known as the “Mishnah.” Later, to further explain the “Mishnah,” twelve more volumes were produced known as the “Talmud.”
A cult grew up around the law known as the Pharisees. Their name means, “The Righteous Ones.” These men were 100% committed to keeping God’s laws and thus earning their salvation by correct behavior.
A cartoon best sums it up. It is titled “How a Pharisee witnesses.” In it a Pharisee is piously asking a sinner, “Have you heard the 4,973 spiritual laws?”
All of this, yet in the Sermon on the Mount Christ speaks of the law with reverence.
Not Come to Abolish the Law
That is something of what God’s law is.
Now this, how Jesus did not come to abolish the law.
In his sermon, Jesus assured his listeners, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law.” Indeed, he mused, not even a “Jot or tittle would pass away.” These are tiny Hebrew alphabet marks, like our dotting an i or crossing a t. Clearly, then, Jesus expressed God’s law to be eternal, even to the tiniest of details.
In the complexity of all this, don’t miss the simple truth. God is, and he is a personal God calling to Himself a people, the Jews. God selects Israel to be the land wherein they dwell. And he gives them a law, a social contract, the living of which singles them out from among the people of the world. They would be healthier, wiser, more prosperous, more just than any people around the globe. As the prophet predicted, “Nations will come to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60).
Today, our society is greatly antagonized by anyone trying to structure our lives by law. But we’ve got to live by someone’s rules? For instance, what traffic laws will we obey?
What if I stop on red and go on green? But you decide to do the opposite! Others stop on yellow. And still others stop at nothing, while everyone makes up their own speed limits. At the first intersection there is a snarl of traffic, human carnage, and general immobility. Matters become worse as citizens take things into their own hands.
I tell you, the highways would be full of people trying to get out of the city not into it!
To avoid such anarchy that surely leads to bondage not freedom, God gave his law. It is a civilizing social pact limiting certain behaviors and encouraging others. It’s result in the living is order, prosperity, and community.
There is something hidden in the law that is very wonderful. For the law reveals what God is like in what he allows or disallows.
Example! If you visit my home, I’ll likely request you leave your muddy shoes at the door. And I like a fire in the hearth, but guard carefully to keep the flames off the living room rug. And you won’t hear lewd rap music or see pornography lying about. You see, what I limit and permit reveals my character. And as it is with me, so it is with God. His laws bespeak of his nature, the content of his character.
God’s health laws reveal his practical compassion for our physical well-being. His ceremonial laws reveal his desire for well-rounded fellowship with us in worship that is both reverent and beautiful. And his decalogue reveals his character of community, order, truth, and justice.
Who God is as revealed in this law is best described as “Holy.” And of God’s law and character Jesus assures us they are eternal. Such cannot be abolished by kings or politicians in congress, nor will the ravages of time weaken it, nor will the fickleness of cultural trends cause it to go out of fashion. “Not a jot nor a tittle shall pass away,” Jesus assured.
So far, Jesus has mentioned the law and said he did not come to abolish it. Now he makes a third point. “I came to fulfill it,” Christ said.
When I look into a mirror, it tells me my face is dirty. But can I use the mirror to wash my face? Of course not! It has diagnostic powers but not cleansing qualities. I must find soap and water for washing.
Likewise, when I look into the law I realize I am a lawbreaker, a sinner before God. But can I wash in the law? No way! Hebrews 7:9 says, “The law never made anything perfect.” The law, like a mirror, can diagnose my problem, but it can’t fix it. So, I go from the law poor in spirit, mourning my sin, hungry for mercy. And where do I find cleansing forgiveness? In Jesus Christ!
As I read the New Testament and come to the cross, I understand on some level that Christ took the punishment for sin that I myself deserved. I trust him and find forgiveness, and he sets me free. But free to do what? To continue breaking his law? No! Out of the incredible relief of mercy, for sheer love and gratitude, I’ve a new desire to obey God’s law.
Take the teenager just turned 16 and given a new sports car. He drives it with glee! Sadly, he doesn’t take care of it. Turning corners on two wheels, no oil changes, tires under inflated, grinding the gears. And one day the car quits. It’s towed to the dealer, still under warranty, so the mechanic asks to see the maintenance schedule. The kid responds with a blank look, “What maintenance?”
So the warranty is voided. The engine has seized up. It’s a total loss. The kid is on foot. He can’t buy his way out of this fix.
That’s when the father steps in. He forgives his boy, purchases a new car, and puts the child in it. But he also gives him an owner’s manual and says, “Read this. And this time keep the rules!”
Will that son waste his second chance? Probably not! Out of sheer gratitude the child will keep the law, not because he’s “got to,” but because he “gets to” please his father.
Thus when we realize God the Father’s love for us on the cross, we must answer it. “Christ is the end of the law,” Paul wrote in Romans 10:4. Augustine had a fine way of putting it. “Love God and do as you please,” he spoke. And when we love Jesus, indeed, it becomes our desire to please him.
So far Jesus has spoken of the law, how it is eternal, and how he fulfills it. Next Christ gives six very meddlesome examples of the fulfillment of the law. They are the six “you have heard it said, but I say” statements dealing with murder, adultery, divorce, swearing, revenge, and love. To these we will in detail turn in later chapters.
My friend Harvey was laboring in his garden breaking stones. “That pile doesn’t seem to shrink,” I observed. “No, Stephen, these stones are like the Ten Commandments. You can go on breaking them, but you can’t get rid of them.”
Alas for our society’s attempt to get rid of God’s law. Until 1978 schools in Kentucky posted the Ten Commandments on classroom walls. But the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that such was unconstitutional. Since then the law has become increasingly obscure.
The results? Prior to 1978 the two worst problems in the classroom were talking out of turn and chewing gum. Today, however, our besetting classroom problems are disrespect for teachers, drugs, theft, profanity, guns and cheating. And pregnancy.
For those of us in Christ, we have the urgent mandate as salt and light, to live forth the law not to save us, but because we are saved.
Paul wrote it well in Romans 6:12-14, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts. And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace.”
Jesus, save me from self righteousness to your righteousness. Amen.